When I heard that Minneapolis-based Peace Coffee would be opening their own coffee shop this fall, my first reaction was not overly enthusiastic. Apart from a select few, coffee shops are not known to be hugely profitable, and I feared this new venture would pull resources from one of my favorite local companies and drag it down. Peace Coffee has been growing its fair trade, organic, bike-delivered, coffee bean business for years. Why risk all that the company has worked for rather than simply add new accounts and products to their already successful model? When I got the chance to speak with Lee Wallace, Peace Coffee's CEO ("Queen Bean" on her business cards), it all made sense.
"The new coffee shop allows us to prepare our coffee the way we envision it when it comes out of the roaster," Lee tells me, "most roasters know roasting but not about being a barista, and most baristas don't know much about roasting."
"Does that mean that Peace Coffee is expert at both?" I ask.
Lee says no, that Peace Coffee has been focused squarely on the roaster side, as business has required. Several employees, like Head Roaster Keith Tomlinson, know their way around the coffee bar, but this is not one of the company's core competencies. Yet.
"With our new coffee shop, we can better support our existing customers," Lee continues. "By bringing this barista expertise in-house, we can understand the experience from their perspective. This will help us better understand how to support everyone from Seward Coop to the Craftsman to the Birchwood Cafe."
This makes sense to me. Currently, coffee shops, restaurants, and coops buy bulk beans, get some quick training from the roasters, and go off and to figure things out on their own. This means that -- regardless of how perfectly roasted the coffee beans are -- there is an almost infinite number of things that can go wrong before a consumer drinks his or her coffee. For a company like Peace Coffee, this amounts to an enormous risk. Operating a coffee shop allows Peace Coffee to walk in their customers' shoes, and to acquire the experience and expertise the company needs to train baristas all over town, ensuring that their coffee tastes as good as it possibly can. It's an ingenius plan.
The new plan "also allows us to connect more directly to coffee drinkers," Lee offers. She's on a roll. "Every time Peace Coffee offers a class, from roasting to tasting to preparing to fair trade regulations, people stay forever and pepper us with questions -- and we love doing it." As a mission-based company (owned by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP)), Peace Coffee is about more than just a great cup of coffee; the company wants us to know what fair trade means, why organic certification is important, and why the co-op model matters when it comes to farmers. Having a storefront will allow Peace Coffee to evangelize its mission every single day, in the most direct way possible.
"We'll have a community space, and we can use it for training or for a bookclub," Lee says, summing things up. "And we're excited to have a whole supply chain so we can tell the whole story -- how to do business fairly, with a focus on coffee. Peace Coffee is really hands on. We own the relationships, we understand what's happening in the fields, we travel to see our farmers, and we help our farmers understand and produce the products we want. We're deeply involved in agriculture and in this model of trade. It can seem like very academic, esoteric stuff." She's right. All this talk of fair trade, agriculture, and supply chains is making me thirsty. What it comes down to, according to Lee, is a simple, "unpretentious cup of coffee."
When Peace Coffee's coffee shop opens this fall at 3262 Minnehaha Avenue in the Minneapolis neighborhood that was once home to Wonderland Amusement Park, it will offer light lunches and baked goods. It will have a community space for people to learn and connect. It will have a whole bunch of fair trade, organic, delicious coffee. I can't wait.